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India’s Government Denies Ordering Secret Phone Taps

India’s government denied ordering secret taps on the mobile telephones of senior politicians as the opposition paralyzed Parliament in a deepening confrontation with the ruling alliance.

Outlook news magazine in its latest issue said that sophisticated equipment meant to track terrorist groups had been used to intercept and record phone conversations of leading members of the ruling Congress party and other groups. The claims add to pressure on the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh which tomorrow may face a rare vote over budget duties on fuel. A major rally against rising prices last week blocked roads in the capital, New Delhi.

“I wish to state that no telephone tapping or eavesdropping on political leaders was authorized,” by the government, Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said in Parliament today. Rivals demanded a thorough investigation.

“I feel this is something which is extremely serious,” L.K. Advani, a leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, said referring to the magazine report.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist), one of those Outlook said was a victim of the spying operation, said in a statement that “such acts subvert the democratic system and breed an atmosphere of illegality” in government. “They cannot be tolerated.”

Both houses of Parliament were stalled for the day as opposition members shouted slogans and demanded Singh reply to the magazine’s report.

Cricket Controversy

House proceedings were paralyzed this month by a cricket scandal that forced India’s junior foreign minister, Shashi Tharoor, to resign. Tharoor denied allegations he had used his position to influence the award of a team in the lucrative Indian Premier League to his home state of Kerala.

Outlook in its edition dated May 3 reported that Congress leader Digvijay Singh, Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, Communist party leader Prakash Karat, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had phone calls intercepted over the last three years. The tapping was carried out by the National Technical Research Organization, or NTRO, an intelligence agency created after a 1999 conflict with Pakistan in the Kargil border region of Kashmir, the magazine said.

The last tapped call mentioned by Outlook involved Pawar and Lalit Modi, the commissioner of the Indian Premier League. Modi was formally suspended today by the Board of Control for Cricket in India in the wake of Tharoor’s resignation and tax probes into the league’s finances.

Agenda Blocked

“Nothing has been found in the records of the NTRO or elsewhere to substantiate the allegations” made in the magazine, Chidambaram said today.

Singh’s government is struggling to keep its legislative agenda on track. A proposal to reserve a third of parliamentary seats for women angered some allies, and the introduction of a bill on capping reactor operators’ liability in the event of nuclear accidents has been delayed by widespread opposition.

Opposition groups including the Communists and the Samajwadi Party plan to use a legislative device tomorrow to demand the scrapping of fuel duties imposed in this year’s budget. The move may force the government to show its strength in a vote.

“There is no question mark on the stability or future of the government,” said Sanjay Kumar, an analyst with the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. “No doubt the image of the government amongst the people has dipped.”

Karat’s phone was targeted as he led efforts to defeat Singh’s previous administration in a 2008 vote over a nuclear energy deal with the United States, which the communists opposed, Outlook said. The government won the ballot and secured re-election last May.

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